How do your memories smell?

Ransom Riggs

A new book called The Scent of Desire argues that smells are subjective; some people love the smell of roses, for instance, and some people -- like a woman interviewed in the book who first smelled roses at her mother's funeral -- hate them. But sometimes smelling something you hate isn't as bad as smelling nothing at all, which the author argues can drive you crazy.

For example, the late singer from INXS, Michael Hutchence. He lost his sense of smell after a 1997 accident, and according to friends, it contributed to his deep depression, and perhaps even his suicide. Smell is the sense most closely associated with emotional memory -- just think about how evocative certain scents can be -- and the one most closely tied to mental health and happiness. In the book, a woman discusses the impact that losing her sense of smell had on her life: she said it affected everything from her ability to be a homemaker, to being intimate with husband, to her paranoia about her body.

Still worse, losing your sense of smell also affects your sense of taste: "While taste is only bitter, salty, sour, sweet and umami or savory, all flavors come from smell, so without smell you can't taste the difference between an apple and a potato, or a glass of red wine and a cup of cold coffee."

The author's thesis seems to be that positive and negative associations with certain smells are locked into our brains from an early age and stick with us the rest of our lives, and to lose that sense of smell is to, in effect, lose a part of our memory. It's the subtlest of the senses, but perhaps the most crucial in terms of our emotional connection to the world.

What smell brings back the strongest emotional memory for you?

Also, does anyone know someone who's lost their sense of smell, and wouldn't mind sharing a bit about their experience?